Arundhati Roy, the Not-So-Reluctant Renegade

“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.

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