“I’ve always been slightly short with people who say, ‘You haven’t written anything again,’ as if all the nonfiction I’ve written is not writing,” Arundhati Roy said.
It was July, and we were sitting in Roy’s living room, the windows closed against the heat of the Delhi summer. Delhi might be roiled over a slowing economy, rising crimes against women and the coming elections, but in Jor Bagh, an upscale residential area across from the 16th-century tombs of the Lodi Gardens, things were quiet. Roy’s dog, Filthy, a stray, slept on the floor, her belly rising and falling rhythmically. The melancholy cry of a bird pierced the air. “That’s a hornbill,” Roy said, looking reflective.
Roy, perhaps best known for “The God of Small Things,” her novel about relationships that cross lines of caste, class and religion, one of which leads to murder while another culminates in incest, had only recently turned again to fiction. It was another novel, but she was keeping the subject secret for now. She was still trying to shake herself free of her nearly two-decade-long role as an activist and public intellectual and spoke, with some reluctance, of one “last commitment.” It was more daring than her attacks on India’s occupation of Kashmir, the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or crony capitalism. This time, she had taken on Mahatma Gandhi.
She’d been asked by a small Indian press, Navayana, to write an introduction to a new edition of “The Annihilation of Caste.” Written in 1936 by B. R. Ambedkar, the progressive leader who drafted the Indian Constitution and converted to Buddhism, the essay is perhaps the most famous modern-day attack on India’s caste system. It includes a rebuke of Gandhi, who wanted to abolish untouchability but not caste. Ambedkar saw the entire caste system as morally wrong and undemocratic. Reading Ambedkar’s and Gandhi’s arguments with each other, Roy became increasingly dismayed with what she saw as Gandhi’s regressive position. Her small introductory essay grew larger in her mind, “almost a little book in itself.” It would not pull its punches when it came to Gandhi and therefore would likely prove controversial. Even Ambedkar ran into difficulties. His views were considered so provocative that he was forced to self-publish. The more she spoke of it, the more mired in complications this last commitment of hers seemed.
Roy led me into the next room, where books and journals were scattered around the kitchen table that serves as her desk. The collected writings of Ambedkar and Gandhi, voluminous and in combat with each other, sat in towering stacks, bookmarks tucked between the pages. The notebook in which Roy had been jotting down her thoughts in small, precise handwriting lay open on the table, a fragile intermediary in a nearly century-old debate between giants.
“I got into trouble in the past for my nonfiction,” Roy said, “and I swore, ‘I’m never going to write anything with a footnote again.’ ” It’s a promise she has so far been unable to keep. “I’ve been gathering the thoughts for months, struggling with the questions, shocked by what I’ve been reading,” she said, when I asked if she had begun the essay. “I know that when it comes out, a lot is going to happen. But it’s something I need to do.”
In her late 30s, Roy was perhaps India’s most famous writer. The publication of “The God of Small Things” in 1997 coincided with the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. It was the beginning of an aggressively nationalist, consumerist phase, and Roy was seen as representative of Brand India. The novel, her first, appeared on the New York Times best-seller list and won the Booker Prize. It went on to sell more than six million copies. British tabloids published bewildering profiles (“A 500,000-pound book from the pickle-factory outcast”), while magazines photographed her — all cascading waves of hair and high cheekbones — against the pristine waterways and lush foliage of Kerala, where the novel was set and which was just beginning to take off as a tourist destination.
Roy’s tenure as a national icon came to an abrupt end when, a year later, the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) government carried out a series of nuclear tests. These were widely applauded by Indians who identified with Hindu nationalism, many of them members of the rising middle class. In an essay titled, “The End of Imagination,” Roy accused supporters of the tests of reveling in displays of military power — embracing the jingoism that had brought the B.J.P. to power for only the second time since independence — instead of addressing the abysmal conditions in which a majority of Indians lived. Published simultaneously in the English-language magazines Outlook and Frontline, the essay marked her beginning as an overtly political writer.
MANISH SWARUP / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Roy’s political turn angered many in her upper-caste, urban, English-speaking audience, even as it attracted another. Most of her new fans had never heard of her novel; they often spoke languages other than English and felt marginalized because of their religion, caste or ethnicity, left behind by India’s economic rise. They devoured the essays Roy began writing, which were distributed in unauthorized translations, and flocked to rallies to hear her speak. “There was all this resentment, quite understandable, about ‘The God of Small Things,’ that here was this person writing in English winning all this money,” Roy said. “So when ‘The End of Imagination’ came out, there was a reversal, an anger among the English-speaking people, but also an embrace from everyone else.”
The vehemence of the response surprised her. “There is nothing in ‘The God of Small Things’ that is at odds with what I went on to write politically over 15 years,” Roy said. “It’s instinctive territory.” It is true that her novel also explored questions of social justice. But without the armature of character and plot, her essays seemed didactic — or just plain wrong — to her detractors, easy stabs at an India full of energy and purpose. Even those who sympathized with her views were often suspicious of her celebrity, regarding her as a dilettante. But for Roy, remaining on the sidelines was never an option. “If I had not said anything about the nuclear tests, it would have been as if I was celebrating it,” Roy said. “I was on the covers of all these magazines all the time. Not saying anything became as political as saying something.”
Roy turned next to a series of mega-dams to be built on the Narmada River. Villagers likely to be displaced by the project had been staging protests, even as India’s Supreme Court allowed construction to go forward. Roy traveled through the region, joining in the protests and writing essays criticizing the court’s decision. In 2001, a group of men accused her and other activists of attacking them at a rally outside the Supreme Court. Roy petitioned for the charges to be dismissed. The court agreed but was so offended by the language of her petition (she accused the court of attempting to “muzzle dissent, to harass and intimidate those who disagree with it”) that it held her in contempt. “Showing the magnanimity of law by keeping in mind that the respondent is a woman,” the judgment read, “and hoping that better sense and wisdom shall dawn upon the respondent in the future to serve the cause of art and literature,” Roy was to be sentenced to “simple imprisonment for one day” and a fine of 2,000 rupees.
The 2002 BBC documentary “Dam/Age” captures some of the drama around Roy’s imprisonment at the fortresslike Tihar Jail. When she emerged the next day, her transformation from Indian icon to harsh national critic was complete. Her hair, which she had shorn into a severe cut, evoked, uneasily, both ostracized woman and feisty feminist. The English-language Indian media mocked Roy for criticizing the dams, which they saw as further evidence of India’s rise. Attacks followed each of her subsequent works: her anguished denunciations of the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, the plans for bauxite mining in Orissa (now Odisha) by a London-based corporation called Vedanta Resources, the paramilitary operations in central India against indigenous tribal populations and ultraleft guerrillas known as Naxalites; and India’s military presence in Kashmir, where more than a half million troops hold in check a majority Muslim population that wants to secede from India.
Kashmir, over which India has fought three of its four wars against Pakistan, would become one of Roy’s defining issues. In 2010, after a series of massive protests during which teenage boys faced off against soldiers, Roy publicly remarked that “Kashmir was never an integral part of India.” In suggesting that the state of India was a mere construct, a product of partition like Pakistan, she had crossed a line. Most progressives in India haven’t gone that far. Roy soon found herself the center of a nationwide storm. A stone-throwing mob, trailed by television vans, showed up at her front door. The conservative TV channel Times Now ran slow-motion clips of her visiting Kashmir in which she looked as if she were sashaying down a catwalk, refusing to answer a reporter’s questions. Back in Delhi, Times Now convened a panel moderated by its immensely popular host, Arnab Goswami, to discuss — squeezed between headlines and a news crawl in which “anger” and “Arundhati” were the most common words — whether Roy should be arrested for sedition. When the sole Kashmiri Muslim panelist, Hameeda Nayeem, pointed out that Roy had said nothing not already believed by a majority of Kashmiris, she was cut off by Goswami. Cases were filed against Roy in courts in Bangalore and Chandigarh, accusing her of being “antinational,” “anti-human” and supposedly writing in one of her essays that “Kashmir should get freedom from naked, starving Indians.”
The apartment where I met Roy in July occupies the topmost floor of a three-story house and has all the trappings of an upper-class home — a sprawl of surrounding lawn, a high fence and a small elevator. There are few signs of her dissenter status: the stickers on her door (“We have to be very careful these days because . . .”); the books in the living room (Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Eduardo Galeano); and, particularly unusual in the Indian context, the absence of servants (Roy lives entirely alone). Perhaps what is most telling is how Roy ended up in this house, which she used to ride past every day on her way to work, on a bicycle rented for a rupee.
Roy was born Suzanna Arundhati Roy in 1959 in Shillong, a small hill town in the northeastern fringes of India. Her mother, Mary, was from a close-knit community of Syrian Christians in Kerala. Her father, Rajib, was a Bengali Hindu from Calcutta, a manager of a tea plantation near Shillong and an alcoholic. The marriage didn’t last long, and when Roy was 2, she and her brother, Lalith, a year and a half older, returned to Kerala with their mother. Unwelcome at the family home, they moved into a cottage owned by Roy’s maternal grandfather in Ooty, in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu.
“Then there are a lot of horrible stories,” Roy said and began to laugh. “My mother was very ill, a severe asthmatic. We thought she was dying. She would send us into town with a basket, and the shopkeepers would put food in the basket, mostly just rice with green chilies.” The family remained there until Roy was 5, defying attempts by her grandmother and uncle to turn them out of the house (inheritance laws among Syrian Christians heavily favored sons). Eventually, Roy’s mother moved back to Kerala and started a school on the premises of the local Rotary Club.
As the child of a single mother, Roy was ill at ease in the conservative Syrian Christian community. She felt more at home among the so-called lower castes or Dalits, who were kept at a distance by both Christians and upper-caste Hindus.
“Much of the way I think is by default,” she said. “Nobody paid enough attention to me to indoctrinate me.” By the time she was sent to Lawrence, a boarding school founded by a British Army officer (motto: “Never Give In”), it was perhaps too late for indoctrination. Roy, who was 10, says the only thing she remembers about Lawrence was becoming obsessed with running. Her brother, who heads a seafood-export business in Kerala, recalls her time there differently. “When she was in middle school, she was quite popular among the senior boys,” he told me, laughing. “She was also a prefect and a tremendous debater.”
Roy concedes that boarding school had its uses. “It made it easier to light out when I did,” she said. The child of what was considered a disreputable marriage and an even more disgraceful divorce, Roy was expected to have suitably modest ambitions. Her future prospects were summed up by the first college she was placed in; it was run by nuns and offered secretarial training. At 16, Roy instead moved to Delhi to study at the School of Planning and Architecture.
Roy chose architecture because it would allow her to start earning money in her second year, but also out of idealism. In Kerala, she met the British-born Indian architect Laurie Baker, known for his sustainable, low-cost buildings, and was taken with the idea of doing similar work. But she soon realized she wouldn’t learn about such things at school. “They just wanted you to be like a contractor,” Roy said, still indignant. She was grappling, she said, with questions to which her professors didn’t seem to have answers: “What is your sense of aesthetic? Whom are you designing for? Even if you’re designing a home, what is the relationship between men and women assumed in that? It just became bigger and bigger. How are cities organized? Who are laws for? Who is considered a citizen? This coalesced into something very political for me by the end of it.”
For her final project, Roy refused to design a building and instead wrote a thesis, “Postcolonial Urban Development in Delhi.” “I said: ‘Now I want to tell you what I’ve learned here. I don’t want you to tell me what I’ve learned here.’ ” Roy drew sustenance from the counterculture that existed among her fellow students, which she would represent years later in the film “In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones” (1989). She wrote, designed and appeared in it — an elfin figure with a giant Afro playing the character of Radha, who gives up architecture to become a writer but drowns before completing her first novel.
By this time, Roy had broken off contact with her family. Without money to stay in the student hostel, she moved into a nearby slum with her boyfriend, Gerard da Cunha. (They pretended to be married in deference to the slum’s conservative mores.) “It’s one thing to be a young person who decides to slum it,” Roy said. “For me, it wasn’t like that. There was nobody. There was no cuteness about it. That was my university, that period when you think from the point of view of absolute vulnerability. And that hasn’t left me.”
After graduation, she briefly lived with Da Cunha, in Goa, where he was from, but they broke up, and she returned to Delhi. She got a job at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, and met Pradip Krishen, an independent filmmaker who offered Roy the female lead in “Massey Sahib” (1985), a film set in colonial India in which Roy played a goatherd. Roy and Krishen, who later married, collaborated on subsequent projects, including “Bargad,” a 26-part television series on India’s independence movement that was never completed, as well as two feature films, “Annie” and “Electric Moon” (1992).
Krishen’s background could not have been more different from Roy’s. A Balliol scholar and former history professor, Krishen, a widower, lived with his parents and two children in a sprawling house in the posh Chanakyapuri neighborhood. When Roy joined him, they moved to a separate apartment upstairs. Roy immersed herself in Delhi’s independent-filmmaking world. The movies’ progressive themes appealed to her, but it was a world dominated by the scions of elite families, and it soon came to seem out of touch and insular to her. She spent more and more time teaching aerobics, to earn her own money, and hanging out with artists she met in school.
She had already begun work on her novel when “The Bandit Queen,” a film, based on the life of the female bandit Phoolan Devi, was released. Devi was a low-caste woman who became a famous gang leader and endured gang rape and imprisonment. Roy was incensed by the way the film portrayed her as a victim whose life was defined by rape instead of rebellion. “When I saw the film, I was infuriated, partly because I had grown up in Kerala, being taken to these Malayalam films, where in every film — every film — a woman got raped,” Roy said. “For many years, I believed that all women got raped. Then I read in the papers how Phoolan Devi said it was like being raped again. I read the book the film was based on and realized that these guys had added their own rapes. . . . I thought, You’ve changed India’s most famous bandit into history’s most famous rape victim.” Roy’s essay on the film, “The Great Indian Rape Trick,” published in the now-defunct Sunday magazine, eviscerated the makers of “Bandit Queen,” pointing out that they never even bothered to meet Phoolan Devi or to invite her to a screening.
The piece alienated many of the people Roy worked with. Krishen, who gives the impression of a flinty loyalty toward Roy even though the couple split up, says it was seen as a betrayal in the tightknit film circles of Delhi. For Roy, it was a lesson in how the media worked. “I watched very carefully what happened to Phoolan Devi,” she said. “I saw how the media can just excavate you and leave a shell behind. And I was lucky to learn from that. So when my turn came, the barricades were up.”
When I met Roy at the New Delhi airport a few days after we first talked, she hung back from the crowd, ignoring the stares coming her way. She had turned down a request to address a public gathering in Kashmir, but there still seemed something political about traveling there just a week after eight Indian soldiers were killed in an ambush. The passengers on the flight Roy and I took, Hindu pilgrims visiting the Amarnath shrine, certainly thought so. Periodically, they filled the small aircraft with cries of “Bom Bhole,” or “Hail Shiva,” their right fists rising in unison. Once in Srinagar, the capital, Roy was stopped often by Kashmiris who wanted to thank her for speaking up against the Indian state. They also hoped she would agree to have her picture taken with them. She usually did.
But for the most part, she kept out of the public eye. Roy was staying at the house of a journalist friend, and as he and another journalist talked on their mobile phones, following a story about a fight that had broken out between Amarnath pilgrims and Kashmiri porters, she distributed packs of Lavazza coffee brought from Delhi, only half listening. Later, she declined to attend the screening of a new documentary about the Naxalite guerrillas, preferring to work on her novel.
Roy had come to Kashmir mainly to see friends, but it was hard to escape the strife altogether. A few days later, we drove through the countryside, a landscape of streams sparkling through green fields and over cobblestones, punctuated by camouflaged, gun-toting figures. Sometimes they were a detachment of the Central Reserve Police Force, sometimes the local police and, every now and then, distinctive in their flat headgear, soldiers of the counterinsurgency Rashtriya Rifles. “There were bunkers all over Srinagar when I first began coming here,” Roy said. “Now they use electronic surveillance for the city. The overt policing is for the countryside.”
In Srinagar earlier that week, the policing had seemed overt enough. Roy had been invited to speak at a gathering organized by Khurram Parvez, who works for the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, an organization that has produced extensive reports on mass graves and extrajudicial killings in Kashmir. As 40 or so people sat cross-legged on the floor — activists, lawyers, journalists and students — Parvez asked that cellphones be turned off and placed in “thighland” in order to prevent surreptitious recordings that could be passed on to authorities.
Roy put on reading glasses, and these, along with the stack of books in front of her, a selection of the nonfiction she has written over the past 15 years (just brought out by Penguin India as a box set of five candy-colored volumes), gave the gathering the air of an impromptu seminar. Roy began by asking audience members to discuss what was on their minds. A young lawyer who grew up in a village about 30 miles from Srinagar told a story of two women, who, after being raped by soldiers, spent the night shivering in separate bathing cabins, too ashamed to go home, hearing only each other’s weeping. Roy listened carefully to this and similar accounts, occasionally nudging the conversation beyond Kashmir, to the rifts and fractures within India itself, including the forests of central India, where she spent more than two weeks in 2010 with ultraleft guerrillas and their tribal allies for her last book, “Broken Republic” (2011).
“I feel sad, you know, when I’m traveling in India and see Kashmiris who’ve been recruited into the Border Security Force,” she said. “It’s what this state does, hiring from one part of the country and sending them to fight in other parts, against people who on the surface might seem different but who are actually facing the same kind of oppression, and this is why perhaps it’s important to be able to talk to each other.”
She picked up one of the books in front of her, the lemon-yellow “Listening to Grasshoppers,” and found a passage from the essay “Azadi,” or “Freedom.” In it, she describes attending a 2008 rally in Srinagar demanding independence from India. “The slogan that cut through me like a knife,” she read in a quiet, clear voice, “was this one: Nanga bhooka Hindustan, jaan se pyaara Pakistan” — India is a naked, starving country; Pakistan is more precious to us than life itself. “In that slogan,” she said, “I saw the seeds of how easily victims can become perpetrators.”
The discussion went on for hours, spanning global capitalism and climate change, before returning to Kashmir. Did Kashmiris identify with Pakistan? Some did, some emphatically did not. What about the role of women in the struggle for Kashmiri self-determination? How could they make themselves heard when they found it so difficult to make themselves heard in this room? In the fierce summer heat, the group, splintered into factions, growing tired and agitated. Roy decided to bring the proceedings to a close with a joke from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”
“In the movie, this man, Brian, asks a band of guerrilla fighters, ‘Are you the Judean Peoples’ Front?’ ” Roy said, mimicking a British accent. “And the reply he gets from this really offended group is: No, absolutely not. ‘We’re the Peoples’ Front of Judea.’ ” The joke, an elaborate parody of radical factionalism, made Roy laugh heartily. It also changed the emotional temperature of the room. As we came out of the house and milled around in the alley, the various groups seemed easier with each other. Later, a young man who had just completed a degree in fiction would express to me his disappointment that the conversation had never turned to writing at all.
Beyond the Gandhi book, there has been much to pull Roy away from fiction. In May, when Naxalite guerrillas killed at least 24 people, including a Congress politician who had formed a brutal right-wing militia and whom Roy criticized in her last book, she was immediately asked for a comment but declined to talk. “So they just republished an old interview I had given and tried to pretend it was a new interview,” she said.
“The things I’ve needed to say directly, I’ve said already,” she said. “Now I feel like I would be repeating myself with different details.” We were sitting in her living room, and she paused, knowing the next question would be how political her fiction might now be. “I’m not a person who likes to use fiction as a means. I think it’s an irreducible thing, fiction. It’s itself. It’s not a movie, it’s not a political tract, it’s not a slogan. The ways in which I have thought politically, the proteins of that have to be broken down and forgotten about, until it comes out as the sweat on your skin.”
But publishing is a risky venture in India these days; court orders are used to prevent books from coming out or to remove them from circulation, even when they are not explicitly political. Most recently, Penguin India pulped all existing copies of “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” by Wendy Doniger, after a conservative Hindu pressure group initiated a case against the book. Penguin also publishes Roy, and she felt compelled to protest.
Although Roy won’t divulge, even to her closest friends, what her new novel is about, she is adamant that it represents a break from both her nonfiction and her first novel. “I’m not trying to write ‘The God of Small Things’ again,” she said. “There’s much more grappling conceptually with the new novel. It is much easier for a book about a family — which is what ‘The God of Small Things’ was — to have a clear emotional heart.” Before she became caught up in her essay on Ambedkar and Gandhi, she was working on the novel by drawing, as she tends to do in the early stages, trying to figure out the structure. She then writes longhand. What she calls the “sandpapering” takes place on a laptop, at her kitchen table.
“I’m not attached to any particular space,” she said when I asked her how important the routine was to her writing. “I just don’t need to feel that someone’s breathing over me.”
After “The God of Small Things” was published, she began to give some of the money she made from it away. She sent her father, who resurfaced after she appeared in “Massey Sahib” and was not above trying to extort money from her, to a rehab center. (He died in 2007.) In 2002, when Roy received a Lannan Foundation award, she donated the $350,000 prize money to 50 small organizations around India. Finally, in 2006, she and her friends set up a trust into which she began putting all her nonfiction earnings to support progressive causes around the country.
“I was never interested in just being a professional writer where you wrote one book that did very well, you wrote another book, and so on,” Roy said, thinking of the ways in which “The God of Small Things” trapped her and freed her. “There’s a fear that I have, that because you’re famous, or because you’ve done something, everybody wants you to keep on doing the same thing, be the same person, freeze you in time.” Roy was talking of the point in her life when, tired of the images she saw of herself — the glamorous Indian icon turned glamorous Indian dissenter — she cut off her hair. But you could see how she might say the same of the position in which she now finds herself. The essay on Gandhi and Ambedkar was meant to complete one set of expectations before she could turn to something new. “I don’t want that enormous baggage,” Roy said. “I want to travel light.”
Siddhartha Deb is the author of “The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India.” Editor: Sheila Glaser