By Amy Kazmin
June 3, 2011
As 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
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
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.
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
"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." 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
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
"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."
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
"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
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
"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.
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