January 27, 2016

Women of Doubt: Arundhati Roy forces change

Perhaps it's true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house---the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture---must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for. Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstitutred. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story. 
--The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

If you research Arundhati Roy, you're going to find that she is an Indian actress, activist, and author--the bestselling nonexpatriate Indian author, in fact.

You'll also see "renegade". "Hysterical". "Shrill". "Hyperbolic."

And you won't see her deny these terms, either. In one interview for a now defunct Sunday magazine called The Hindu, Roy said, "I am hysterical. I'm screaming from the bloody rooftops. And he and his smug little club are going 'Shhhh... you'll wake the neighbours!' I want to wake the neighbours, that's my whole point. I want everybody to open their eyes."

How did a young woman born to a "disgraceful marriage" become one of the rowdiest and loudest voices in Indian fiction?

Let's see.

Early Life and Education

On Friday, November 24, 1961, Suzanna Arundhati Roy was born to Rajib and Mary Roy in Shilong, Meghalaya. 1

Her father was a Bengali Hind who managed a tea plantation, and the marriage between her parents was considered a disgraceful affair because of the difference in their religious beliefs. 1 However, there is a significant tradition to be found in Roy's mother that reflects in throughout Roy's life: "her mother was a Christian of Syrian descent who challenged India’s inheritance laws by successfully suing for the right of Christian women to receive an equal share of their fathers’ estates".2

When Roy was 2, her parents divorced, and she, her mother, and her brother returned to her mother's home of Kerala, where the family would settle after some moving around and her mother would found a school when Roy was five years old.1

Roy attended various schools, eventually ending up at the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi.1

Roy dated a young man and with nowhere else to go, she moved in with him, living in the slums and pretending to be married in Delhi, first, and then in Goa.1 She did a variety of odd jobs, including an artist and an aerobics instructor after realizing she had very little desire to plan buildings.4 After their break up, she returned to Delhi, obtaining a position at the National Institute of Urban Affairs.1

In 1984, Roy met Pardip Krishen, a film maker, and he offered her a role in Massey Sahib, as a goatherder. The couple eventually married, and went on to work together on a television series about India's independence movement. Roy began her writing career with the screenplay In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones, which Krishen filmed and she acted in. She also wrote Electric Moon for him to film. 1

Annie netted her the 1988 National Film Award for Best Screenplay. 1

Seeds of Controversy

Over the course of her life, Roy has been embroiled in multiple controversies, but the very first was when she publicly criticized filmmaker Shekhar Kapur for his film Bandit Queen, which was based on the life of Phoolan Devi, a bandit who later became a Member of Parliament and a "heroine of the oppressed"4. She couldn't not speak up, as she "was incensed by the way the film portrayed [Dvi] as a victim whose life was defined by rape instead of rebellion."2

On August 22, 1994, Roy publicly published her film critique, "The Great Indian Rape Trick", in a now defunct magazine.2 She opens the piece by saying:

At the premiere screening of Bandit Queen in Delhi, Shekhar Kapur introduced the film with these words: "I had a choice between Truth and Aesthetics. I chose Truth, because Truth is Pure." 
To insist that the film tells the Truth is of the utmost commercial (and critical) importance to him. Again and again, we are assured, in interviews, in reviews, and eventually in writing on the screen before the film begins. "This is a True Story."
If it weren't the "Truth", what would redeem it from being just a classy version of your run-of-the-mill Rape n' Retribution theme that our film industry churns out every now and then? What would save it from the familiar accusation that it doesn't show India in a Proper Light? Exactly Nothing. 
It's the "Truth" that saves it. Every time. It dives about like Superman with a swiss knife - and snatches the film straight from the jaws of unsavoury ignominy. It has bought headlines. Blunted argument. Drowned criticism.

She continues her scathing criticism, saying:

Shekhar Kapur says that the film is based on Mala Sen's book - India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi. The book reconstructs the story, using interviews, newspaper reports, meetings with Phoolan Devi and extracts from Phoolan's written account, smuggled out of prison by her visitors, a few pages at a time. 
Sometimes various versions of the same event - versions that totally conflict with each other i.e: Phoolan's version, a journalist's version, or an eye- witnesses version - are all presented to the reader in the book. What emerges is a complex, intelligent and human book. Full of ambiguity, full of concern, full curiosity about who this woman called Phoolan Devi really is. 
Shekhar Kapur wasn't curious. 
He has openly admitted that he didn`t feel that he needed to meet Phoolan. His producer Bobby Bedi supports this decision "Shekhar would have met her if he had felt a need to do so." (Sunday Observer August 20th [1994]).
It didn't matter to Shekhar Kapur who Phoolan Devi really was. What kind of person she was. She was a woman, wasn't she? She was raped wasn't she? So what did that make her? A Raped Woman! You've seen one, you've seen 'em all. 
He was in business. 
What the hell would he need to meet her for? 
Did he not stop to think that there must have been something very special about her? That if this was the normal career graph if a low-caste village woman that was raped, our landscapes would be teeming with female gangsters? 
If there is another biographer any where in the world who has not done a living subject the courtesy of meeting her even once - will you please stand up and say your name? And having done that, will you (and your work) kindly take a running jump?

 She doesn't back down, for the entire piece and a second one, accusing Kapur of "exploiting Devi and misrepresenting both her life and its meaning" and questioning whether he was right to reenact the rape of a woman who was still alive and who he did not consult about his project.

In a 2014 article, Roy explained her outrage:

 “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.”2

These were definitely noticed:
The columns caused an uproar, including a court case, and Roy retreated from the public and returned tot he novel she had begun to write.4

The God of Small Things

Roy had begun The God of Small Things, her debut novel, in 1992. The semi-autobiographical tome was completed in 1996 and was available in eighteen separate countries by that June. It was received with mixed acclaim and criticism, with the United States audience received it warmly while audiences in the United Kingdom and India were less enthused (one UK reviewer even called it "execrable".1

All the same, it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. It rose to the fourth position on the New York Times Bestsellers List for Independent Fiction1

The novel's appeal was simple:

The semiautobiographical work departed from the conventional plots and light prose that had been typical among best-sellers. Composed in a lyrical language about South Asian themes and characters in a narrative that wandered through time, Roy’s novel became the biggest-selling book by a nonexpatriate Indian author and won the 1998 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.4

The timing of the publishing was fortuitous, also:

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.2

This probably helped cement Roy's status in Indian political and public life.

Life After The God of Small Things

In that 2014 interview, Roy expressed displeasure at one of the common themes since her debut novel was published nearly two decades ago:

“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. 2

The God of Small Things created certain expectations that were both liberating and constraining:

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.” 2

The popularity she enjoyed from her debut was short-lived:

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. 2

Roy's political activism has been varied, from protesting the building of a dam to criticizing both the Taliban and the United States government's Afghanistan war. She's returned to writing screenplays, notably the television serial The Banyan Tree. 1

It makes sense that Roy would be peeved by people constantly waiting for her next work of "writing" (meaning fiction", given her prolific career in the intervening years:

Roy’s subsequent literary output consisted mainly of politically oriented nonfiction. She published a collection of essays, The Algebra of Infinite Justice (2002), and several books, including Power Politics (2001), War Talk (2003), and Public Power in the Age of Empire (2004). In recognition of her outspoken advocacy of human rights, Roy was awarded the Lannan Cultural Freedom Award in 2002, the Sydney Peace Prize in 2004, and the Sahitya Akademi Award from the Indian Academy of Letters in 2006. 4

Her work opposing the Narmada dam landed her in some legal trouble, which she documented:

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. 2
In 2007, she announced that she is working on a new fiction project. She's been reticent about the subject, however, revealing very little in interviews:

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.” 2

Despite her own promises to remove herself from political discussions, she finds herself unable to step down, recently leading her to criticize Gandhi for his support of the caste system:

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. 2

And even now, she continues to speak out. In November 2015, she committed to returning that 1989 National Award for Best Screenplay awarded to her by the Indian government for Annie, because as she says:

Today, we live in a country in which, when the thugs and apparatchiks of the new order talk of “illegal slaughter”, they mean the imaginary cow that was killed — not the real man who was murdered. When they talk of taking “evidence for forensic examination” from the scene of the crime, they mean the food in the fridge, not the body of the lynched man. We say we have “progressed”, but when Dalits are butchered and their children burned alive, which writer today can freely say, like Babasaheb Ambedkar once did, that “to the untouchables, Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors”, without getting attacked, lynched, shot or jailed? Which writer can write what Saadat Hasan Manto wrote in his Letters to Uncle Sam? It doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with what is being said. If we do not have the right to speak freely, we will turn into a society that suffers from intellectual malnutrition, a nation of fools. Across the subcontinent it has become a race to the bottom — one that the New India has enthusiastically joined. Here too now, censorship has been outsourced to the mob.

She takes a strong stance here with regards to the recent murder of a man because it was believed that he had consumed beef (later, it was revealed that he hadn't--it was pork in his fridge).


I'm not going to dissemble: it's not often that I start one of these pieces and wind up so excited by what I read. This was a joy to read about. I can't really say much more than that.

I feel personally challenged, reading Arundhati Roy's life story, to commit to the ideals of social justice that will improve my own nation, to never back down, and to absolute WAKE THE NEIGHBORS.

She's an amazing and fascinating woman.


1. Arundhati Roy". <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arundhati_Roy> Accessed January 27, 2016.

2. Deb, Siddhartha. "Arundhati Roy, the Not-So-Reluctant Renegade". New York Times Magazine. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/09/magazine/arundhati-roy-the-not-so-reluctant-renegade.html?_r=0> Published March 5, 2014. Accessed January 27, 2016.

3. Roy, Arundhati. "I am returning my award because I am ashamed of India". The Guardian. <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/06/returning-award-ashamed-india-arundhati-roy> Published November 6, 2015. Accessed January 27, 2016.

4. Tikkanen, Amy. "Arundhati Roy: Indian author, actress, and activist".  <http://www.britannica.com/biography/Arundhati-Roy> Accessed January 27, 2016.

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