Arundhati Roy is one of the world’s great observers. In her writing is a raging activism that takes on unpopular, underwritten causes and is unafraid to challenge the ruling elite.
Born in northeast India, Roy was the daughter of a tea plantation manager and a women’s rights activist. When aged two, her parents divorced and Roy’s mother took her young children back to her hometown of Kerala, in south India. At 16, she left the south for Delhi where she lived in a small tin-roofed hut and sold empty beer bottles.
Her first novel was published in 1997. The God of Small Things tells the devastating story of twins Rahel and Estha and in doing so, examines India’s caste system, its history and social mores. It explores the ways in which the ‘Untouchable’ caste is derogated and ostracised from society, and the consequences of breaching the caste’s longstanding codes. The narrative deftly illustrates how the personal is indeed political, and her writing style is searing in its beauty, delivering weighty truths about neglected societies.
I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry.
Roy has written polemic and campaigned against inequality throughout her career. In an essay for Outlook magazine in 1998, she wrote of the terrible consequences of nuclear fall-out: “If there is a nuclear war, our foes will not be China or America or even each other. Our foe will be the earth herself. The very elements – the sky, the air, the land, the wind and water – will all turn against us. Their wrath will be terrible. Our cities and forests, our fields and villages will burn for days. Rivers will turn to poison. The air will become fire.” Her political campaigning has caused clashes with the state on a number of occasions. In 2002, she served a “symbolic imprisonment” of one day due to her opposition to the contentious Narmada dam project, the largest river development scheme in India which was set to potentially displace 1.5 million people at great environmental cost. In 2010, she faced threat of arrest, and charges of sedition, after she remarked that Kashmir, a disputed territory, was not an integral part of India. In 2015, she received a contempt notice from the Bombay High Court on writing an article in support of Professor Saibaba, a severely disabled academic at Delhi University, imprisoned for ‘anti-national activities’.
I don’t respect the court as an institution: I know it is as much a part of the system as anything else. It offers shelter to the privileged. The other India stands outside the pale.
Roy has written a wealth of fiction and non-fiction throughout her career. When stripped down, she considers that her body of work is all concerned with a study of power and powerlessness. She is resolute in her quest for a more just world, yet maintains an understanding of her place in it – that she is searching and learning, but can benefit a campaign by her connection with it.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy’s long-awaited second novel, was published by Random House on 6 June 2017.