By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
(Celebrity author, columnist and activist Arundhati Roy speaks to s Handunnetti about being labelled a ‘negative writer’, of informed and engaged citizenry, casteism, feminism and the joy of being published in the local languages)
Her reputation as a ‘rebel writer’ is something that makes Arundhati Roy glow. “It must be that child within me. I often have a different idea, an opinion. I always thought my hair was quite representative of my thought processes, wild and ungoverned. It is my mind that is disciplined and deeply political,” says the celebrated author and activist.
For a girl from a little coastal ‘Syrian Christian’ village in Kerala, it had been an arduous journey. Deeply influenced by her strong-willed mother and India’s ‘biggest disease’, the caste system, Roy is of firm faith that the systemic discrimination she observed in rural India left an indelible impression on her during an impressionable age. Now that she is a writer, the deep-rooted ‘ugly streaks of India’ get documented on the pages of her books.
Being one of the most controversial and prominent South Asian writers today, Roy is quick to add that she is also among the ‘most hated’. She says it is not clichéd, but who in India would want to engage in discussion, a woman, a non-Hindu, often holding contrary views, full of disapproval for the nation state and rebels against the institutionalized caste system. “I celebrate being the outcast. I am oh so not the Indian, the India political establishment would cherish.”
For Roy, her notoriety is something she enjoys, unrepentantly. Yet, it had taken time to come to terms with the fact that the establishment was clearly against her, her opinions therefore, would not be celebrated on home soil.
“I am human enough to say that it used to distress me a bit, but I am outraged enough to stick my head out and disagree with the Indian establishment. Look at our people, and look at the political hypocrisy we celebrate in the largest democracy in the world? For me, there can be no trade off.”
The 1997 Booker Prize winner for her God of Small Things and one of the foremost writers of non-fiction in Asia, Roy insists that the book is political and nuanced. “I have dealt with a number of ‘core diseases’ ailing India. It reflects the darker side of our country. The book now belongs to the world.”
Unlike most writers who prefer to sit in air-conditioned rooms and type at their computers, Roy believes in ‘getting on to the street’, ‘being in the thick of things’ and ‘following her heart.’
It is anathema for Arundhati Roy to comment on issues on people, not having set her eyes on them, or not having experienced in some way, the issues that affect them. This has taken her to the Maoists in the jungles to Kashmir where there is a call for azadi, or freedom. “People give me the topics. As an engaged citizen, I want the state to treat all of India well, and being left of centre, I demand equity and equality. No Indian can be superior or inferior to another,” insists Roy, her idealism still high.
She is deeply appreciative of a new development in her life, as God of Small Things is reaching non-English readerships in the native languages. Translated recently to her mother tongue Malayalam, Kannada and Tamil, Roy feels that is now that her work is taking real root.
“Within India, there is so much linguistic diversity. Our divisions are also linked to our caste and language. Being translated into the local languages is as important as getting my original publication out.”
A notorious writer
“Notoriety in fact is not a bad thing. It was stamped on me early. So people expect me to say controversial things or write them. I do both,” she smiles.
Roy concedes that God of Small Things did bestow on her many gifts, chief among them fame. “Being well-known has such a down side to it, I cannot go shopping on a road without being noticed, but the good thing is, I can hold my opinion. The average person expects Arundhati Roy to have an opinion. Where appropriate, I use my popularity to hang a peg or two, give a little nudge to those who wish to express dissent or to highlight an undermined social issue.”
Roy believes her desire to express dissent is deep-rooted. Her strong-willed mother inspired awe and dislike within her. It had taken years for her to overcome some childhood scars linked to living in a small village in Kerala. “Wherever possible, I strive to create some space for dissent. Social progress is linked to that. It must be that little rebellious child within me.”
When an anti-corruption wave swept India proposing strong anti-graft laws for India, Roy dissented, true to style. She found the protestors lacking political maturity or actual commitment and went against the wave, condemning the civil society voices as being ‘theatrical’ and into self-promotion. With time, the Anna Hazare-led Team Anna campaign withered and an already disenchanted Indian public belatedly began to agree with Roy.
While no believer of India’s vociferous anti-corruption advocacy, she says it is certainly not due to any lack of idealism. Instead, it has much to do with opportunism and popularity. “The real activists are not protesting in front of Janthar Manthar with over a 1,000 cameras capturing every single move. The real issues are fought out in small villages and towns by regular people, not celebrities. They seek no cameras.”
A recent development that had irked Roy is the Unique Identification Number issued to all citizens. “India pontificates about its democratic identity and ideals. I strongly demand that I be excluded. All that data is not needed for a state database. We citizens should enjoy a degree of anonymity, and we cherish it.”
Poverty in India
Adds Roy, “India has 800 million people living under $1US per day. We have institutionalized exclusion through the caste system. Whether they are Gandhians, Adivasis or Maoists, all are excluded. When the Indian State declares war on its own people in Manipur, Nagaland and Kashmir and terms it as national security, it is about excluding massive populations. There is a body count, not our diversities. Certainly when it comes to opinion, what counts is convergence and not diversity.”
So in her books, she portrays the inner struggle of individuals, those who refuse to conform. Having run away from her ‘proper Syrian Christian minority village’ at 16 years to study architecture in New Delhi, at some point of time, she stumbled upon writing. She never looked back.
Roy recalls, “The marriages in our village were more like mergers and acquisitions. As a child, I was told that no “proper Syrian Christian boy” would want to marry you. I was dusky, tom-boyish, graceless and gawky. I promptly learned to appreciate the benefits of such exclusion and promised I would never be acquired by some man, desperately looking for a proper Syrian Christian wife.”
Yet for all her impassioned statements, Roy deftly denies any claims to a feminist identify. “Just that I am an engaged citizen. I see inequality, more so against women, and speak up. The organized and theory-wielding activist types in my opinion do more harm than good. People become projects and the empowerment process is linked to indicators. There is no empathy or a feeling of oneness.”
It is natural therefore for Roy to find her alternate feminist models among the tribals. She identifies feminists dabbling in ‘unfeminine’ tasks and rejecting patriarchal social and power structures among tribal communities. “Some 48% of the guerillas were women. Many had seen their mothers being raped or experienced violence of multiple kinds including sexual assault.”
New feminist models
To her, this resistance movement struggling to fight external forces and also forces within remains the ‘biggest feminist movement in India’ and smiling adds, “But in India, we call them terrorists.”
Likewise, Roy feels inspired by the women mobilizes associated with Narmada Bacho Andolan. “To me, these are the icons, the emerging feminist identities. The adivasis, the dalits have lived with violence, oppression and inequality and are slowly beginning to push those boundaries. They are certainly not recognized by the structured agencies and are not funded,” opines the rebellious writer.
There are other dilemmas about labelling too. Is a dalit demanding water an activist? Anadivasi demanding forest clearance to stop, a conservationist or activist? Roy finds the labels not just limiting, but also crippling.
Stoically taking on issues the mainstream media repeatedly fails to highlight, this author turned to column – writing in the mainstream print media in a bid to highlight the day-to-day issues of the average citizen. Her passionate writing continues to draw passionate responses, from intense dislike to adulation.
Roy’s strategic use of her fame to be the social activist writer is a new concept, a new label. That is why the reputed Delhi-based investigative journal referred to Roy as ‘the Cinderella who gladly smashed her glass slippers.’ “I don’t mind the slippers,” says Roy, flashing her trademark smile.
COURTESY: CEYLON TODAY