Small Things and Big Issues


| March/April 2001


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 may be.
—Andy Steiner
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 Small Things. It has sent her in directions she probably never expected to travel, for reasons she is still trying to make clear.

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 people.'

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 should behave.
'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 resume.

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 proponents.

'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 downstream.

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 a journalist.

'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 (Modern Library, 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 for what 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 phone.'

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––a book that could never be called a 'political' novel in the conventional sense.

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 don’t.'

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 me angry.'

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 else.'

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 West.

'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.'
From The Ecologist (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


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