If you ignore her legion of detractors and her yearn for criticism, Indian author Arundhati Roy can be an interesting, even affable person. Seldom does her reputation fail to precede her before she walks into a room. But she says the reputation of being an instinctive critic has been crafted for her by what she calls a “corporate controlled press” The author was present at the Sharjah International Book Fair and spoke to a crowded hall of book lovers on Friday.
Though she says that she finds it hard to understand the term ‘‘human rights activist’’, Roy is known across the globe to be one of India’s most controversial writers, environmentalist and human rights campaigners.
Before turning to activism and being a staunch critic of India’s political structure, the now 50-year-old author won the Man Booker prize for her first and only fictional title The God of Small Things in 1997. Overnight, her novel became the best-selling book by a non-expatriate Indian author and catapulted her to a status of what she calls being “India’s fairy princess”. The novel is a tragic love story, which revolves around topics like politics, class relations, cultural tensions and social discrimination, which are issues still prevalent in India.
Fifteen years later, when Roy is asked if she would change anything about the book, her response is: “When I read it now, I do not have that urge to re-write or correct it. That isn’t because it’s a perfect book but it’s because I am not that kind of a person who wants to keep fiddling with something that I’ve already done.”
“But what I find myself constantly surprised by is the fact that the book which was written all those years ago deals with certain aspects of Indian life and society and these are things which continue to haunt me and enrage me. Here I am speaking of issues like caste system, poverty, the growing communist movement in India, the extreme left, and the naxalite movement.”
However, Roy believes that not much has changed with the political state of the country that was reflected in the book 15 years ago.
I have spent the last 15 years writing overtly political essays, but those concerned have not been able to deal with what is going on with the Dalit movement in India. Caste, ethnicity and religion continue to be the engine that drives Indian politics. These are things that continue to be uppermost on my mind,” said Roy.
Since her first book, Roy has gone on to write essays on several important issues that shaped India’s political, environmental and social history.
She is a strong critic of India’s nuclear policies, the Narmada dam project, the 2002 violence in Gujarat, and more recently she voiced her opinion against anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare.
Speaking about as to why she never forayed into writing fiction again, she said: “It took me four and half years to finish the God of Small Things and I’ve never been a particularly ambitious person.” After the release of the book in 1997, she said that she had become part of the ‘Miss Universe parade’.
“But I had the space to raise a dissenting voice and if I had kept quiet, I would not be able to write with any degree of honesty again. So, I stepped off the pedestal and overnight turned from being a Fairy Princess into a seditionist. How is it possible that Indian liberal intellectuals cannot stand up and take a moral position?”
Roy believes that she is far from being a hated figure that the media would like to portray her as. “I feel embraced, I feel loved and I feel I can go almost anywhere and say ‘can you give me lunch?”
However, Roy remained stubbornly tight-lipped about her next work of fiction saying only that she “hope(d) to finish a second book”.
Roy blames her instinctive writing tendencies in her DNA and said that she does not consider herself to be a “great, courageous person”.
“I cannot be preening and accepting accolades about my courage. I am doing what I do and I enjoy what I do, I don’t have a choice. I am a person of instinct. But when everything around is sizzling, bubbling and boiling and I feel like there is no space in my body for my organs anymore. I feel that it is harder to keep quiet than not to write.”
Roy said that through her non-fictional writing, she felt like she was a part of the people of her country. “Fiction is a lonely affair. But when I write non-fiction, I feel like I am a part of the people of my country, but not in a nationalistic way. I am not a nationalist in that sense.”
But yet, when she was asked to suggest an alternative state to India’s problems, she skirted around the issue and said that there was a structural flaw in the way Indians imagine themselves. “We need building blocks for a kind of intellectual honesty.”
The author interacted with the crowds and signed copies of her books for fans over the weekend at the event organised by DC Books and was also attended by Shaikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, president of the Emirates Publishers Association, and Counsul-General of India Sanjay Verma among other dignitaries.