After winning the Booker Prize in 1997, Arundhati Roy could have been a “pretty lady who wrote a book”. Instead, she took up a host of political causes . . . and fell out with her country’s elite.
Three years after Arundhati Roy published her first book, The God of Small Things, she cut off all her hair. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1997 and Roy had been hailed as a voice of an emerging nation, a literary heroine with a beautiful face, an Indian writer able to define the post-colonial imagination. Her own country revelled in her success - here was a photogenic ambassador for modern India, superpower of the future.
Knowing Roy as we do now, her reaction to the adulation seems predictable. She is a natural rebel, disdainful of mainstream popularity. There could be no way more visible to demonstrate her contempt than shearing off her long, dark hair. As she told the New York Times in 2001, she didn't want to be known as "some pretty lady who wrote a book".
Roy has not published any fiction since The God of Small Things, much to the impatience of the six million people who bought that book (and, you imagine, her agent David Godwin). Over the past 14 years, she has instead devoted her energy to India's most urgent political challenges: nuclear tests, dams, Kashmir, Hindu nationalism, terrorism, the emergence of a super-wealthy elite and the 800 million citizens who still live on less than Rs20 (30p) a day.
Roy's version of India is uncompromising. The country, she says, is in "a genocidal situation, turning upon itself, colonising the lower sections of society who have to pay the price for this shining India". Its leaders are "such poor men because they have no idea of history, of culture, of anything, except growth rates". The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is a "pathetic figure as a human being". Democracy is thriving "for a few people, in the better neighbourhoods of Bombay and Delhi". The Indian elite are "like an extra state in America". The country has a defence budget of $34bn this year. "For whom?" she asks. "For us." In her account, there is a war taking place, not with Pakistan or China, but within India's borders: the sham democracy has turned on its poorest citizens.
There is something incongruous about listening to Roy talk in her gentle voice about the Indian state's campaign of violence as we drink tea in a five-star Westminster hotel. She sits in an upholstered chair, legs delicately folded beneath her, a grey shawl wrapped around her shoulders. But then incongruity seems to be one of Roy's closer companions. She prefers to be at odds with convention, to confound expectations. "There are people who have comfortable relationships with power and people with natural antagonism to power," she says. "I think it's easy to guess where I am in that."
Roy has not limited her antagonism to India: over the years, she has lambasted US foreign policy, accused Israel of war crimes and called for the Sri Lankan government to be investigated for genocide. But her most recent book, Broken Republic, is a return to the heart of her country. In the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, she says, the government is waging war on forest-dwelling tribal people in order to gain access to the land's mineral wealth (the mountains are full of bauxite, coal and iron ore).
Of the three essays in the book, it is the second - "Walking With Comrades" - that has garnered the most attention. Roy describes her secretive journey into the Chhattisgarh forests guided by a militant resistance group of Maoist rebels who fight the Indian army and police on behalf of the indigenous population. The piece opens dramatically - the flourish of an accomplished storyteller - with a note slipped under Roy's door, inviting her to meet the rebels in the town of Dantewada at one of four specific times. She is told she must carry a camera and a coconut to identify herself.
Over three weeks, Roy follows the Maoists through the forest, sleeping in their makeshift open-air camps under the stars. The rebels become her friends and, at times, the object of her awe ("there is a sea of people, the most wild, beautiful people"). She ends the piece with her departure: "When I looked back, they were still there. Waving. A little knot," she writes. "People who live with their dreams, while the rest of the world lives with its nightmares. Every night I think of this journey."
It is a typical passage in Roy's non-fiction - heightened emotion, the sense of a life experienced at extremes, populated by a cast of heroes and villains. She is beguiled by the Maoists, whom the Indian media and politicians vilify for their brutal resistance (the group has abducted and murdered villagers, including children, as well as frequently killing policemen and members of the security forces). Roy acknowledges their violence in her book, saying of the wider Maoist movement that "it's impossible to defend much of what they've done". But her sympathies rest with the individual activists she meets in Chhattisgarh and she has no problem, in principle, with their methods. Even though Roy identifies with Mahatma Gandhi's vision of self-reliance, she sees his advocacy of non-violent resistance as little more than "pious humbug".
The book, she says now, was "accidental". Roy does not work to commission; she has no interest in following anyone else's agenda. She writes according to instinct. "It's not some project-driven life, you know, where you're like: 'Oh, let me go to England and promote my new book,'" she tells me. "All my books are accidental books - they come from reacting to things and thinking about things and engaging in a real way. They are not about, 'Oh, did it get a good review in the Guardian?' I don't care."
Instead she wants her work to mean something to the disenfranchised constituency to which she attempts to give a voice. "All these essays, they've been translated into every Indian language and sold, made into pamphlets. I've had people in villages telling me that they sleep with 'Walking With Comrades'."
After Roy left the forest, she received a note from one of the rebels. She has memorised it, and recites the message in Hindi before translating it for my benefit: "After you wrote [your article], there was a wave of happiness that went through the forest." That simple line, she says, meant "more than any book or prize or good review - anything".
The prize counts, though. Roy would not find a publisher, let alone an audience, for her non-fiction if she had not won a prestigious literary award for her novel. "She's well aware her profile comes from the Booker," Simon Prosser, her editor at Penguin, tells me. "She often says that prizes and money don't really matter to her, but I think what does matter to her is using that position to get her message across." Prosser acknowledges that there are far fewer people who would want to read her analysis of the state of modern India than would buy her next work of fiction, and yet he is committed to publishing her political writing, placing her in the same bracket as Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein. These, he says, are writers who are "very different in style, but belong together in terms of their passion and their selflessness".
Bugbear of the rich
Where does rebellion begin? Not just teenage rebellion - the casual flouting of parental authority - but lifelong dedication to resistance, to wrangling with power wherever and whenever you encounter it. Roy says she spent her early years "terrified of being stuck". She was born in Shillong, Meghalaya, in north-eastern India, in 1961 and grew up in Aymanam in Kerala (where The God of Small Things is partly set), but was horrified at the thought of a future spent in a traditional rural community. So she escaped, moving to Delhi when she was 16 to study architecture.
She has an unconventional family history: her mother, Mary, who set up a school in Kerala, was to some degree an outcast in their Christian community after marrying a Hindu (Roy's father) and then quickly divorcing him. In old age, her mother has not lost her defiance. In "Walking With Comrades" Roy describes her mother calling her the day before she travelled to the forest: "'I've been thinking,' she said, with a mother's weird instinct, 'what this country needs is a revolution.'"
Roy's own revolutionary spirit is only fired by the enmity she encounters at home. "Every day," she says, almost proudly, "one is insulted in India." Last October, she was charged with sedition for a speech she made about the disputed territory of Kashmir at a seminar in New Delhi. The complaint was lodged by an advertising executive, Sushil Pandit, an associate of the leadership of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
A month later, the women's wing of the BJP attacked and vandalised Roy's house, filmed by a crew from the cable channel Times Now (which Roy has described as "Fox News on acid"). The crew had mysteriously arrived before the party activists. Such ties - threaded between business, politics and media - are common among the Indian elite, and Roy has become a primary target.
The novelist and essayist Pankaj Mishra - the first to champion The God of Small Things after Roy sent him the manuscript - worries for his friend. He describes over email a "culture of intimidation" in India: the open threats from right-wing television anchors, the "crazies" who launch court cases. They all seek to drive Roy out, just as they pushed the veteran artist M F Husain into self-imposed exile in 2006 (Husain died in a London hospital in June). Their hostility is so feverish, he says, because they feel betrayed. The woman the elite of India once declared their literary icon "turned rogue" and, more to the point, turned on them.
But, he insists, their opposition is not representative. Her enemies, Mishra says, are "the Facebooking and Twittering elites, who naturally dislike her and who manage to amplify their dislike more loudly than the many more Indians from much less visible and influential classes who find her a valuable, even indispensable, critical voice". He believes you need to see Roy in a village, a small town, somewhere far from the television studios and affluent neighbourhoods of Mumbai and Delhi, in one of the thousands of places where they have no access to a computer, let alone the internet, to understand how beloved she is among the wider Indian population.
It would be simple to leave it at that: Roy as a woman of the people, loathed by the rich and powerful whose hypocrisy and cruelty she exposes. But fellow writers and activists have also struggled with her polemical stance, even when they have supported her cause. In 2000, Ramachandra Guha, a leading academic and author, wrote an essay in the Hindu newspaper criticising her campaign against the construction of the Narmada Dam in Gujarat (which, Roy said, was going to displace half a million local people). Guha suggested that Roy was careless and lacked judgement, and that her advocacy had undermined the fight against the dam, serving only as a distraction. She accused him in turn of being out of touch, a "creature that didn't make it into the Ark".
When I contacted Guha, he was reluctant to speak about Roy, saying he had nothing further to add. But his argument has been taken up by other Indian academics, such as Jyotirmaya Sharma, a political scientist at the University of Hyderabad and former senior editor of the Times of India. Sharma agrees with Roy in principle: the issues she raises, he tells me on the phone, "are first-rate". Like Roy, he believes that large parts of the Indian state are essentially criminal in their behaviour. Yet he cannot abide the way she chooses to frame her argument, or the tone - "sanctimonious, pompous, holier than thou" - in which she expresses it. She contributes nothing, he says, to proper public debate other than cooking up a controversy in which she is the central player, "people saying we love her, we hate her". "You cannot talk to the woman," he says, so overbearing is her self-righteousness.
As for the substance of her recent book, he thinks she is simply wrong in the romantic picture she paints of the Maoists, who in his view are as criminal in their actions as the government. In conclusion, he argues that "she's the Tony Benn of India". I suggest that in Britain this might well be taken as a compliment. Sharma pauses amid his rising fury and mutters, "Relics have their uses."
Sharma's bluster is typical of Roy's intellectual critics. Some put it down to professional jealousy - she is one of the few anti-establishment figures from India heard and read intently by a large international audience. This means, crucially, that she is paid well for work that would normally be found languishing in undersubscribed journals in her home country. Sharma would dismiss the notion that he craves her celebrity and success, but you can't help but wonder - as he scorns her choice to live in an upmarket neighbourhood of Delhi - if he might not like to live there, too.
Insider on the outside
Roy's commitment to prolonged protest has not made her life easy. There are the threats, attacks and legal actions, but there is also personal sacrifice. Although she mocks Gandhi, she seems to share elements of his self-denial. Her first marriage, to the architect Gerard da Cunha, broke down and her second (in 1984), to the film-maker Pradip Krishen, is complicated: the couple live separately. She tells me the pressure she feels, both from herself and externally, is exhausting and affects "everything in my life, everything!" - including her "most personal relationships".
To live her life, immersed in activism at the most local level and in subjects that are difficult and unpopular, is in part to cut yourself off. It is also to renounce the comfortable lot of a successful novelist. That is what Prosser means when he speaks of her selflessness. She spends her time travelling across India, talking and meeting with activists, not frittering her evenings away at literary parties.
Yet in some ways that kind of dedication is as selfish as it is selfless: it is pursued in a singular way, perhaps at the expense of those close to her. Roy is puzzled by her predicament. "How do you draw the line," she asks, "between how much you can give and be effective? Because you don't want to become some exhausted, pathetic martyr to something and you don't want to bore yourself, either."
For Roy, to be a writer is by definition to offer yourself up to the cause. "You are not somebody on the outside, commenting," she says dismissively. She can read a piece of work and know within "three paragraphs" if the writer is serious or if it is merely a project, the labour of someone who wants to be seen to be engaged. She knows instantly whether they are "outside or inside" their subject.
Being on the inside is fundamental to Roy, but it is not always straightforward. To what extent can a wealthy, Delhi-living author inhabit the condition of an indigenous rural population? “I know that my comrades are glad that I have some resources . . . that I can politically deploy," she says. "It doesn't help them if I stay in the forest, you know."
In her view, writers should be part of the struggle. Roy deplores what she describes as a "terrible shift" that has occurred in the perception of both the purpose of writing and the position of a writer in society - how the writer is presumed to be a fringe player, a mere observer. Mishra says that, in India, the line between literature and politics is anyway more blurred. In the west, he mocks, "people go silent for years while working on a novel and then emerge to sign a petition or two".
In India, you cannot escape politics - it shapes your daily life and intrudes into your private world. And no one embraces that intrusion more avidly than Roy. "I see Arundhati writing on the run," Mishra says, "while deeply and consistently engaged with her world."
Roy, I think, would like that image - the way it reflects her dedication to the causes she espouses but is coloured by a flash of daring. When she lies in a forest, gazing at the stars and hearing the stories of her Maoist companions, she is as enraged by their plight as she is entranced by the wonder and mystery of her adventure. It is this romanticism that so irritates those critics who might otherwise share her politics. Yet it also displays the gift of a storyteller. She happily sacrifices her credibility among the intellectual elite in order to win respect among the people she wants to help.
There is no doubt about her fervour: it is not cynical and not just for show, but that does not mean it isn't riddled with contradictions. Roy has one foot in a five-star London hotel and the other in an Indian forest (where the night sky, she says, is like a "thousand-star hotel"); she lives in luxurious isolation in Delhi but comes alive in public meetings in small Indian towns. And she recognises, poignantly, that she is "too complicated" for the Maoists to belong fully to their cause.
“The whole skill," she tells me earnestly, "is deploying your voice from the heart of the crowd and yet insisting on independence, not as some individualist who wants to be a star but as an individualist who has a particular way of living, or thinking, or loving." As a statement, it seems to capture a conflict at her core: she is the insider on the outside, part of a movement and yet, as a writer, inevitably alone - the individual at the heart of a crowd.
Arundhati Roy's "Broken Republic" is newly published by Hamish Hamilton (£17.99)
Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman