Arundhati Roy is tired. Tired of being who she is expected to be.
Tired of being lauded and condemned at the same time. Tired of the
way her country is going. Tired of having to explain herself.
Behind the Story
Arundhati Roy’s Wild Ride
Let’s just say Arundhati Roy has never lived by the book. To begin
with, she didn’t receive formal schooling until she was 10 years
old. Her mother, who became famous in her own right as plaintiff in
a landmark 1986 Indian Supreme Court case about equal property
rights for women, took responsibility for her daughter’s education.
It was an experiment in free thinking that left an indelible mark
on the young pupil.
From her mother’s classroom, Roy moved to public school in the
southern Indian state of Kerala. But by the time she was 18, she
had fallen out with her mother and was living in a squatters’ camp
in Delhi. Eventually, she enrolled at the Delhi School of Planning
and Architecture. While she was in architecture school, Roy met
fellow student Gerard da Cunha. They quit school together and lived
for a time as self-described 'flower children' in the Indian resort
town of Goa. Four years later they parted ways.
But Roy’s adventures had only begun. 'Discovered' by Indian film
director Pradip Krishen, she took a small role in his movie Massey
Saab. She then wrote a number of film scripts, including Krishen’s
hit Electric Moon. Her energetic public support for Indian folk
hero Phoolan Devi, whose life story she felt had been exploited by
the international hit film Bandit Queen, eventually escalated into
a court case. After the dust settled, she went into semi-seclusion
to write her debut novel, The God of Small Things.
To those living outside India, the remarkable splash created by
Roy’s drifting, melodious, semi-autobiographical novel (a £500,000
advance, the 1997 Booker Prize,
a worldwide speaking tour, translation into more than 40 languages)
may have made her seem like an overnight success. But in truth,
much of Roy’s early life was spent gathering the experiences needed
to write such a masterpiece. And it’s clear that she intends to
keep gaining experiences as fuel for her next project—whatever it
Maybe this isn’t surprising, given where her life has taken her in
recent years. The writer and activist (not a word she likes to use
about herself, but accurate nonetheless) is on a journey that began
in 1997 with the publication of her debut novel, The God of
It has sent her in directions she probably never
expected to travel, for reasons she is still trying to make
As Roy herself has written, her story has 'a sort of cloying
Reader’s Digest ring to it––an unknown writer spent secret years
writing her first novel, which was subsequently published in 40
languages, sold several million copies, and went on to win the
Booker Prize.' Or so it begins. The tremendous success of The
God of Small Things,
a lyrical and tragic tale of the
interlocking generations of an Indian family, loosely based on
Roy’s own childhood, turned this previously unknown architect and
former screenwriter into a global celebrity. Roy, then 36, left
behind her quiet life in Delhi for a yearlong world tour and was
feted everywhere she went. Indian politicians were especially eager
to be associated with this 'Pride of India,' the winner of
England’s highest literary award.
Most famous writers are content to play the part, going to book
signings and ceremonies, appearing on TV, doing the literary thing.
But this is where Roy’s story diverges from the rest. After her
year away, she returned to a country that had changed forever. What
had happened in her absence changed Roy, too, and changed the way
people saw her.
In May 1998, the Indian government conducted its first official
nuclear tests in the Thar desert, a region close to the country’s
tense northwest border with Pakistan. In July 1998, Roy expressed
her outrage in 'The End of Imagination,' an essay published in two
national magazines. The essay was a blast of wit, fact, and fury
aimed at India’s government for spending its money and energy on
bombs while its people starved and its land decayed. 'The air is
thick with ugliness,' she wrote, 'and there’s the unmistakable
smell of fascism on the breeze. . . . India’s nuclear bomb is the
final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its
Roy had done what few celebrity writers dare to do: She had taken
an outspoken political stand. She had also made powerful enemies.
The same politicians who had praised Roy only months before now
condemned her for betraying her homeland.
Now she sits—small, slight, and quiet—cross-legged on the floor of
her New Delhi flat and dares anyone to tell her how a novelist
'People ask me all the time, am I a writer or an activist,' she
says, 'but it’s such a sad comment on our times that you can even
be asked that question. Because I thought that’s what writers do,
you know––they write about the society they live in. And I want to
say, ‘Do you think it’s my job just to be some cheap entertainer?
Why should you even ask me that question?’'
Roy’s polemical writing did not end with her criticism of India’s
display of nuclear might. She was just warming up.
In February 1999, the Indian Supreme Court lifted a four-year legal
stay that had stopped construction of the vast Sardar Sarovar dam
on the Narmada river, which flows westward through the central
states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat into the Arabian
Sea. The dam is a major feature in the Narmada Valley Development
Project, a grandiose plan to build as many as 3,200 dams, both
large and small, along the Narmada and its tributaries. Despite
what Roy has called one of the most spectacular nonviolent
resistance movements since Gandhi’s time, work on the most
controversial dam project in the country’s history was about to
The Narmada dams have been fought over for decades. Politicians of
all parties say they are necessary for irrigation, for power, and
for drought relief. Dams are development. Dams are progress.
Opponents, spearheaded by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the
local movement against the development plan, say the dams will
drive hundreds of thousands from their homes. It will provide
minimum power for at most a few decades, and will cost billions of
rupees that the Indian government doesn’t have.
A miserably familiar story, in other words, of dams versus people,
development versus democracy. A story that Roy the novelist soon
began trying to help rewrite.
Roy visited Narmada valley in March 1999. In June that year she
published an essay that was to eclipse the controversy of her
anti-nuclear piece. 'The Greater Common Good' is a passionate
dissection of the scandal that has unfolded in the Narmada valley
over the past two decades. It ranges across the politics, ecology,
economics, and, most significantly for Roy the novelist, the
personal and emotional stories behind the development plan and the
damage it is doing––not only to the people of the Narmada valley,
but also, according to Roy, the entire country. 'The story of the
Narmada valley,' she wrote, 'is nothing less than the story of
modern India. Like the tiger in the Belgrade Zoo during the NATO
bombing, we’ve begun to eat our own limbs.'
'You know, it’s such a scam,' she says. Outside, in the muggy,
smoggy streets of Delhi, the monsoon has arrived. But it has come
too late for many of the people living in Gujarat, who recently had
suffered one of the worst droughts in decades. People, cattle, and
crops died. The tragedy was a political gift for the dam’s
'It’s so shocking, what they’re doing,' says Roy. 'Of course they
immediately use it [the drought] to say, ‘Look, you guys, if you’d
allowed this dam to be built there would not have been this
drought.’ And you look at their own maps of . . . where the dam’s
water is supposed to go and where the drought is––there’s no
overlap. And you know, they used 85 percent of Gujarat’s irrigation
budget for the project.'
Figures like these are common in the battle of words over the
Narmada river. The NBA and its allies have amassed a formidable
array of facts and statistics that highlight just how weak the case
for the dam project has become. Activists say the dams will
displace more than 320,000 people and affect the lives of at least
a million. They will submerge more than 988,000 acres of forest.
Ten thousand fishing families who depend on the Narmada estuary for
a living are likely to lose their livelihood when the dams are
raised—though in the project’s 20-year history, the government has
conducted no study of how the dams will affect the environment
The arguments for and against the dams are complex, but Roy insists
that the issue cannot be left to the experts. That, she says, was
one of the reasons she got involved in the first place. She came
back from her first visit to the Narmada region 'convinced that the
valley needed a writer.' Meaning a novelist, a fiction writer, not
'As a writer, I have the license and the ability to move between
feelings and numbers and technical stuff and to tell the whole
story in a way which an expert doesn’t seem to have the right to
do,' she explains. Roy sees the connections between the economics,
the politics, the ecology, and the human story of the Narmada as
crucial. 'When I went to the valley,' she says, 'I realized that
what has happened is that all these experts had come in and
hijacked various aspects of it, and taken it off to their lairs.
They didn’t want people to understand.' Roy did want them to
understand, and believed her role, the writer’s role, was to tell
the whole story.
'The Greater Common Good' was later published along with 'The End
of Imagination' in The Cost of Living
1999), a slender volume that brought the Narmada valley story to
the wider world.
Later in 1999, Roy traveled abroad again, speaking out against the
dams at England’s Cambridge University and at the World Water Forum
in The Hague in the Netherlands. In India, her visits to the
Narmada valley often ended in media scrums and, once, her own
arrest, as she struggled to highlight the plight of the villagers
and activists—who are still promising to drown themselves in the
rising waters if the dam walls are built any higher. Meanwhile, in
Gujarat, some government supporters and 'patriotic' citizens
furiously burned copies of The God of Small Things
they took to be Roy’s anti-Indian insolence.
When she first spoke out against the dams, other writers and even
readers seemed surprised. Roy wrote fiction. What did she think she
was doing playing around with fact? These sentiments may linger,
but she doesn’t care. 'There’s no division on my bookshelf between
fiction and nonfiction,' she says. 'As far as I’m concerned,
fiction is about the truth.'
More recently, though, this criticism has been flipped around. Roy
is now seen as a 'campaigning novelist,' and this infuriates her,
too. All she is doing, she insists, is what any good novelist
should do—make connections between fiction and reality. Instead,
she finds that people put her in a box. She tells the story about a
phone call she got when 'The Greater Common Good' was published.
'This society editor rang me up and said, ‘Oh, darling, that was
such a lovely essay. Now I want you to do a piece for me on child
abuse.’ So I said, ‘Sure. For or against?’ She put down the
The point, she says, is that both supporters and critics have been
too quick to categorize her views. Though she opposes India’s
building of nuclear arms and big dams, she is 'not an
anti-development junkie, nor a proselytizer for the eternal
upholding of custom and tradition.' She does believe, however, that
the growing urban-rural divide is killing India, and that the
country’s legions of technocratic experts are far more dangerous to
its future than its illiterate peasantry could ever be.
Though this political perspective clearly informs Roy’s essays, it
also weaves more subtly through The God of Small Things
book that could never be called a 'political' novel in the
As Roy explains, the novel is 'not just about small things. It’s
about how the smallest things connect to the biggest things––that’s
the important thing. And that’s what writing will always be about
for me. . . . I’m not a crusader in any sense.' Her opponents might
dispute this, but Roy sees her place in the Narmada struggle as
that of a writer and, ultimately, an outsider. 'I can’t fight their
fight,' she says. 'I can fight as a writer to prevent it, but my
house isn’t drowning, my land isn’t being submerged, and my anger
shall never be more than theirs. They have to fight. I
A paragraph in 'The Greater Common Good' explores the link between
Roy’s two chosen emblems of national disaster: the big bomb and the
big dam. 'They’re both weapons of mass destruction,' she writes.
'They’re both weapons governments use to control their own people.
. . . They represent the severing of the link, not just the
link––the understanding––between human beings and the planet they
live on. They scramble the intelligence that connects eggs to hens,
milk to cows, food to forests, water to rivers, air to life, and
the earth to human existence.'
Again, the message is about connections. Failure to make
connections, she says, is what is leading India––and the West, upon
which it increasingly models itself––astray. 'I have to believe,'
she says, 'that what is being done––the dams and the nuclear bombs,
the whole development model––are the symptoms of a terrible
malaise, and that lies inside people’s heads. I don’t know how you
address that . . . but the idea that you just accept it all makes
What, then, is the solution? 'I’m not an economist,' she says, 'so
I can’t really give you an alternative that works.' Nevertheless,
Roy is clear that the best option is local power. This, she
believes, has to be the future for India––decentralized economics,
de-centralized control; handing some measure of power back to the
people. 'Unless that happens,' she says, 'however far into the
information age 3 percent of the population goes, they’re always
going to be pulled back by what they’re doing to everybody
Arundhati Roy is convinced that Indians, allowed to choose for
themselves, will fashion a society informed by the ways Indians
have always lived, attuned to everyday existence, community life,
and the patterns of nature. The alternative is there for all to
see, in the increasingly atomized, mechanized, and disconnected
'When you go to Europe or America for the first time,' she says,
'you arrive in a city where you don’t see any mud, and everything
looks really nice, all the cars and the steel and the glass. But I
look at a car and I think, ‘Somehow this came from earth and water
and forest.’ How? I don’t know. But you need to know––you need to
know what the connection is; who paid the price of what. If you at
least know that, there’ll be some balance.' She smiles slightly, as
if the point was almost too obvious to be worth making. 'There has
to be some balance.'
(Sept. 2000). Subscriptions: $35/yr. (6 issues) from
Cissburg House, Furze View, Five Oaks Rd., Slinfold, West Sussex
RH13 7RH UK. Photographs by Karen Robinson/PANOS