Ahead of the Booker Prize tomorrow, Arundhati Roy tells Peter Popham how the award led her to a new life, and away from fiction
Monday, 17 October 2011
Arundhati Roy, winner of the Booker Prize in 1997 for The God Of Small Things, is not in the frame this year. Again. In fact, she has yet to follow up on that first book, what John Updike described as her "Tiger Woodsian debut".
It's not for want of trying: it is no secret that she has a second one on the stocks. "Everybody has known that for many years!" she laughs. Few people have had a glimpse of it, however, one exception being her friend John Berger, the octogenarian novelist and art critic. He was so impressed that he urged her to drop everything and finish it. "About a year and a half ago I was with John at his home," she recalls, "and he said, 'You open your computer now and you read to me whatever fiction you are writing.' He is perhaps the only person in the world that could have the guts to say that to me. And I read a bit to him and he said, 'You just go back to Delhi and you finish that book.' So I said 'ok...'"
But her good intentions were derailed. "I went back to Delhi," she says, "and in a few weeks this note was pushed under my door: just an anonymous typewritten note asking me to visit the Maoists in the jungles of central India..."
It was a tough invitation, to enter the dark heart of India's secret war zone. But not one that Arundhati Roy could refuse. Since her stunning Booker success, her real passion has been for politics, not fiction.
Today India is going down the same path travelled centuries back by the European colonial powers: identifying sources of strategic minerals, driving off the people living on top of them, and using it to industrialise and grow rich. The difference is that India has no Australia or Latin America to plunder. Instead, as Roy says, "It is colonising itself, turning upon its own poor to extract raw materials."
Centuries after the plunder of mineral resources began, some people living in countries like Britain began to understand the horrors that had been committed along the way: the indigenous peoples massacred, their traditions erased, the survivors reduced to penury. But by then, remorse came cheap: the damage had been done, the great fortunes made.
But in India all this is happening now, in real time. As a result, remorse is far more expensive: if sincerely meant, it could really throw a spanner in the happiness machine.
When Arundhati Roy accepted the Maoists' invitation, she was aware that what is being done to millions of adivasis, India's tribal people, in their villages in the forests of central India was an uncomfortable subject for the Indian middle class.
India's Naxalite rebellion started back in the 1960s, in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari, and through innumerable splits and spats, eruptions and retreats, has been sputtering on ever since. But in 2005 the new Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, raised its profile dramatically when he described it as "India's greatest internal security threat".
Roy believes the timing was significant. "It coincided with the government signing hundreds of secret Memorandums of Understanding with several mining companies and infrastructure corporations," she says. "They basically sold the rivers, the mountains, the forests, they signed them over to private companies. And they needed to wage war against these indigenous people to get them out of their villages, so the mining companies could move in."
Hundreds of thousands of paramilitaries were deployed in the forests to do the job; there followed the burning of hundreds of villages "infested" by Maoists, the setting up of roadside camps for villagers flushed out of them, and a great deal of bloodshed on both sides.
Yet by walking through the forest and listening to the Maoists' stories, Roy exposed a reality that the Indian media had worked overtime to conceal. Forty-five per cent of the rebels, she says, are women; 99 per cent are tribal villagers, the traditional inhabitants of these forests who have taken up the gun in a last, desperate attempt to protect their homes and their land.
When her essay about the trip, Walking With The Comrades, appeared in India last year, Roy was criticised for humanising the rebels. For the Indian middle class, wedded to Gandhian ideas of non-violence, their adherence to the gun put them beyond the pale. But, says Roy, what other option did they have?
"I believe that Gandhian resistance is an extremely effective and moral form of political theatre, provided you have a sympathetic audience," she says. "But what happens when you are a tribal village in the heart of the forest, miles away from anywhere? When the police surround your village, are you going to sit on a hunger strike? Can the hungry go on hunger strike?"
In the years since the triumph of her novel, Roy has become expert at touching the nerve of the Indian middle class. It's a gift that reflects her own hyper-sensitivity. "I feel sometimes that I live without a skin," she says. "I live without a protection. And when you live without a skin you actually are all the time living in an ocean of things that ask to be told.
"The country that I live in is becoming more and more repressive, more and more of a police state... India is hardening as a state. It has to continue to give the impression of being a messy, cuddly democracy but actually what's going on outside the arc lights is really desperate."
But at the same time it remains an open society, and the arguments are there to be won. "This is a very interesting time where I think the debates are being cracked open. Real intervention at a real moment can change the paradigm of the debate, even if it doesn't instantly cause a revolution."
The novel will just have to wait: her political writing, she says, "gives people a bit of space to breathe. What I love most is that the minute it's written it's translated into [the Indian regional languages] Oriya and Kannada and Telugu... People ask me if I feel isolated: I can't tell you how un-isolated I feel. If somebody said, how do you get feedback from your writing, I'd say I just have to stand at a traffic light! It's like a dynamic exchange of love, anger and argument, unfolding every minute of the day."
A life in brief
Born 24 November, 1959, in Shillong, India, near border with Bangladesh.
Education Aged 16, she moved to New Delhi to study architecture. She still lives in the city.
Family In 1984 she married second husband, the filmmaker Pradip Krishen, spending the next few years working in a series of odd-jobs while writing screenplays for Indian films.
Career Her semi-autobiographical debut novel from 1997, The God of Small Things, earned a £500,000 advance and won the Booker Prize. Has since used profile to campaign on environmental issues and against the caste system. This year's Broken Republic: Three Essays, attracted controversy for its defence of tribal Maoist rebels.