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 missing.
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 global status.
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.
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 apologies.
“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 yourself.”
. . .
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 vulnerable.
“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.”
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 answers.
“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 drifted off.”
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 citizens?
“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.”
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.